Character and Construction in Bernard MacLaverty's Early Short Stories about the Troubles
Haslam, Richard, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies
This essay analyzes five stories from Bernard MacLaverty's first two short story collections, Secrets (1977) and A Time to Dance (1982): 'A Happy Birthday'; 'Between Two Shores'; 'Father and Son'; 'My Dear Palestrina'; and 'The Daily Woman'. Each story engages explicitly or implicitly with the political conflict in Northern Ireland. The analysis focuses in particular on the issue of construction, as displayed in three different but intersecting areas. The first area of inquiry is rhetorical, relating to MacLaverty's construction of character, especially his choice of focalizer or point-of-view. The second area is architectural, relating to his construction of setting, and the striking fact that in these early Troubles stories a physical structure--usually, a building or a series of buildings--always plays a vital role. The third area is hermeneutical, relating to the form of construction that derives from the verb 'construe'. To put a construction on something is to interpret it, and MacLaverty's short Troubles fiction provokes the reader to construe the implications of the connections the stories construct among characters, buildings, and political conflict.
Critics have paid considerable attention to Bernard MacLaverty's representation of Northern Ireland's 'Troubles' in his novels Cal (1983) and Grace Notes (1997), but less attention to the depictions of the conflict in his five collections of short stories: Secrets (1977), A Time To Dance (1982), The Great Profundo (1987), Walking the Dog (1994), and Matters of Life and Death (2006). (1) Nonetheless, over the course of three decades and an often interrupted process towards peace, MacLaverty's short fiction has repeatedly probed the dynamics of the Troubles and the Troubled.
As with all of MacLaverty's short stories, the Troubles stories build on the tradition of not only the short story but the Irish short story, thereby raising questions about the way in which the characteristics of a particular literary genre are transformed within specific national and cultural milieux. For example, Charles May argues that '[i]n their very shortness, short stories have remained close to the original source of narrative in myth, folktale, fable, and fairy tale' and that the short story's mythical origins connect it with 'the original religious nature of narrative'. (2) However, May's claim that such origins push the short story 'toward focusing on eternal values rather than temporal ones and sacred/unconscious reality rather than profane/everyday reality' is less persuasive with respect to the Irish context (p.xviii). Indeed, in her study of the Irish short story, Heather Ingman challenges May, arguing that '[a] historical survey allows us to see that while in Ireland this definition may hold true for writers of the Irish Literary Revival and for some contemporary writers such as Eilis Ni Dhuibhne and Angela Bourke, it does not suit the mimetic fictional worlds of mid twentieth-century Irish writers like Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Faolain and Michael McLaverty'. (3) Nevertheless, Ingman is more persuaded by May's contention that short stories 'focus on basic desires, dreams, anxieties, and fears ... and are more patterned and aesthetically unified than novels are' (May, p.xxvi; cited in Ingman, p.8). According to Ingman, May's 'characterization of the short story as an intuitive form dealing with the subconscious, operating through dreams and metaphor, foregrounding style and rejecting chronology in favour of artistic patterning, suggests an alliance with modernism', of the type epitomized in James Joyce's Dubliners and subsequently developed in the work of John McGahern and William Trevor (p.8). (4)
MacLaverty's short stories too belong in the genealogy of 'mimetic fictional worlds' that are at the same time 'patterned and aesthetically unified', simultaneously mythical, existential, and quotidian (Ingman, p.8; May, p. xxvi). In fact, MacLaverty has alluded to such simultaneity in his claim that fiction provides 'a way of telling the truth':
One day when I was teaching I tried to come up with a definition for fiction. …